Christmas is, or at least it should be, a season of joy. But what is the joy of Christmas? Where does it come from? Does it come from the decorations, or the gift giving, or the music, or the traditions, or family gatherings? No. As wonderful as all those things are, they are not truly a source of Christmas joy. The joy of Christmas comes from the good news of Jesus, the news that with the coming of Jesus God has fulfilled his promises to Israel, which are really promises to the whole world mediated through Israel. In Jesus, the Kingdom of God has drawn near, and all those things we love about Christmas are, in fact, the Kingdom of God – righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Joy at the Coming of the King
It is the news of Jesus that produces joy. In the birth narratives of Jesus, both in Luke and Matthew, the coming of Jesus is repeatedly met with exclamations of joy and praise. It is a recurring theme.
(39) Rising up at that time, Mary went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Judea, (40) and she entered into the house of Zacharias and greeting Elizabeth. (41) And it happened that as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped within her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, (42) and she cried out in a loud voice and said: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Who am I that the mother of my lord should come to me? Behold, as the sound of your greeting came into my ears, the infant in my womb leaped with joy. (45) How happy is she who has believed that the things spoken to her by the Lord will be fulfilled.”
(46) And Mary said:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
(47) and my spirit rejoices over God my savior,
(48) because he has looked upon the humble state of his maidservant.
For, behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed,
(49) because the mighty one has done great things in me, and holy is his name,
(50) and his mercy is from generation to generation to those fearing him.
(51) The has shown strength with his right hand,
he has scattered those who are proud in the imagination of their hearts;
(52) He has brought down the powerful from thrones and he has raised up the humble,
(53) the hungry he has filled with good things, and the wealthy he has sent away empty.
(54) He has helped Israel his servant, the remembrance of mercy –
(55) just as he spoke to our fathers – to Abraham and to his seed forever.
(56) Mary remained with her about three months, and then returned to her own town.
We see joy repeatedly in this passage, and I want you to notice four things about this joy. First, joy is the natural response to the good news of Jesus. It almost seems involuntary, as evidenced by the fact that all three characters respond to Jesus with joy and praise, even the unborn John the Baptist. Certainly, an unborn baby is not going to have the capacity to generate joy or praise by an act of will. But none of the characters have to do anything approaching fabricating joy. It just happens when they hear the news of Jesus or reflect upon that news.
Second, the reason Mary, Elizabeth, and John are so naturally filled with joy at the news of Jesus is that it isn’t really “natural” at all, but supernatural. The joy all three characters experience comes from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit moves upon them, and they cannot help but rejoice in God and praise him.
And that leads into the third thing I want you to notice: their response to the news of Jesus is not just joy, but joy and praise. Mary says in perfect Hebraic parallelistic poetry, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” The verbs “magnify” and “rejoice” are parallel to one another, showing that, even if these two things are not identical, they are closely related and inextricably linked. What does it mean to rejoice in the news of Jesus? Certainly, there is an internal emotional aspect to it, but the act of rejoicing involves an external physical expression. In the case of the unborn John the Baptist, he is incapable of speech so he responds the only way he can: by “leaping” within his mother’s womb. Elizabeth expresses her Spirit-inspired joy by speaking prophetically things no human had yet told her. Mary expresses her joy with a spontaneous poem or song that we today call the Magnificat, which is its first word in its Latin translation, Magnificat anima mea Dominum. So what I’m saying is that praise of some sort is the external expression of the internal reality of joy.
Fourth, their joy is not simply mindless euphoria. Mary’s song gives some substance to the joy all three are experiencing. Why are they rejoicing? Because God has looked on the humble situation of his servant, he has done great things, he has shown mercy, he has brought down the powerful and raised up lowly, he has fed the hungry and sent the rich away empty, and, most of all, he has remembered Israel and his promises to them. The reason Mary and Elizabeth rejoice is because they see in the Spirit that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the hopes of Israel. Joy is something that is experienced by the whole human being: mind, heart, and body.